The bleak and stillness of winter makes for a natural backdrop for horror. The darkness creeping slowly in, taking over more and more of the day. The biting cold separating and sending us quickly to our separate refuges as the sun begins to set. There are of course countless films that take advantage of this scenario that nature provides, but few are as quintessentially winter as John Carpenter’s 1982 film The Thing.
There is no question that Carpenter’s aesthetic and the Antarctica landscape that was created in The Thing convey the bleakness of the situation confronting the unfortunate team stationed at the US research situation. Yet, there is one vitally important component in this equation that cannot be overlooked; Ennio Morricone’s incredible score. The road to the final product that we see in film was one that was not easily traversed. It’s story is fascinating and only contributes more to this score becoming one of the greatest horror scores of all time. Let’s begin the adventure shall we?
By 1982, John Carpenter was quickly becoming a household name. Having recently emerged out of The Fog in 1980 and introducing the world to Snake Plissken in Escape from New York in 1981, it seemingly made sense that Carpenter would become the director to helm the remake of the 1951 original. Here was a man who could create vast, dark worlds. A man who could create classics on minimal budgets. These facts obviously appealed to a studio who had struggled for years to find the right fit for such a film. Now, for years, Carpenter had been a jack-of-all-trades when it came to his films; director, composer, writer, etc.
However, this time around, things would have to be different. For Carpenter’s vision of The Thing to be properly executed, some delegation would be required. Thanks in part to a studio size budget of $15 million, Carpenter was afforded this “luxury” and one of the first things he chose to delegate was the score. Being a large name in the composer world himself, Carpenter obviously had a few names in mind. Stuart Cohen, Co-Producer on the film talked about the composer selection process on his personal blog saying:
We initially offered the film to Jerry Goldsmith who was unavailable, doing both Poltergeist and Twilight Zone for Spielberg. Availability on musician John Corigliano (Altered States) was checked. The legendary Alex North (Spartacus) read the script, had ideas, and wanted to meet but at that point I felt the only composer John would possibly entrust his film to other than himself was Ennio Morricone.
Carpenter has often been quoted discussing his respect, admiration and love for Ennio Morricone’s music. As a film composer himself, this is not surprising. The Italian composer is one whose resume is long and distinguished. (He currently holds 522 composing credits according to IMDB) With such giant classics as A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, The Cat o’ Nine Tails, Once Upon a Time in the West, and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Morricone was well known in the European film world at this time. Because of this and his genuine love of the music, Carpenter was eager to not only work with the Maestro, but bring his work more attention with US audiences. Upon discovering Morricone was indeed available and interested in the project, the deal was sealed and an early cut was sent to Morricone in Italy to start writing to.
Of course, Carpenter did have some ideas of his own in regards to the film’s score. Here is an excerpt from the book Conversations with Carpenter where he talks about his initial thoughts that he conveyed to Morricone:
Well, the feel I was looking for was one of dread and despair. That was always the objective. I wanted something that sounded positively doom-laden and tragic. So, I told him to keep the score to a minimum, using a limited number of notes and very few key changes. I wanted that concise simplicity in some of the music. He then wrote a melody with three notes that was very simple, very minimalist. It was exactly what I wanted.
Now, before we dive any deeper it’s important to address the woolly mammoth in the score…yes. There are some John Carpenter cues in the film. Morricone composed and recorded the score to The Thing prior to the final edit and cut being made. During this final process, Carpenter found it necessary to ‘fill in the blanks’ as it were. Along with his right-hand-man Alan Howarth, the two took matters into their own hands and created some bridge pieces and the main title sequence. That being said, there has never been any argument from Carpenter or his camp that this film’s score is entirely credited to Ennio Morricone.
Alright. Let’s begin to excavate this score a bit. Immediately following that perfect title card, we get the signature Carpenter sound. A slow, repetition of a single note that slowly becomes accompanied by another synthesized beat. The syncopated beat simulating a heart beat, accented just slightly off rhythm of what we all recognize as a human heart beat. Next, another synthesized keyboard tone is layered upon the other two creating chords that come across as not quite lined up. The half step note progression creates an air of suspense, an air of unease and tension. As a listener we’re not quite sure where the music is heading. There’s no real hints at where it will be resolving or if the chords will be resolving at all. These notes could go anywhere and leave things in a vague haze of uncertainty. The strange, seemingly unfocused melody comes across as “off.” Like, an imitation or attempt at a song. This auditory subtext, coupled with the bleak and vast arctic landscape as the helicopter pursues the dog through the snow introduces the film in such a way that immediately sets the tone for what’s to come without giving anything away.
The first full fledged Morricone track we are exposed to comes as MacReady and Dr. Copper investigate the Norwegian base. The track titled “Humanity Part 1” builds slowly as information is revealed to both us and the characters. Here we’re getting classic orchestral sounds, but in a unique and fitting way. Higher range strings play together in unison and are joined by clarinets and bassoons. A low droning note held ominously beneath it all changes tones slowly. Muted horns join in the conversation in their due time as well. The arrangement of all these individual sections is cleverly thought out. For the most part, each section of instruments are segmented and when they do overlap they often enter and leave the chorus at separate times. Like the actual characters themselves, the instrument groups are mimicking the social dynamic of the film. At times the characters are highly individualistic; the one vs. the many. At times they come together for a spell, only to have one, or many, step away at certain points.
“Like the actual characters themselves, the instrument groups are mimicking the social dynamic of the film. At times the characters are highly individualistic; the one vs. the many. “
Another signature scene is when the UFO crash site is discovered. Here is where you see Morricone’s deep understanding of film music really shine. As the trio approach the site there’s a buzzing mess of strings conveying the anxiety of the situation. The complete shock and awe at what they are seeing before them is reflected in the music. Then, as they begin to descend into the crater, we get the sonic equivalent of the “Thousand Yard Stare.” This phrase, often used to describe someone gazing off into the ether and a way to convey distance, is most commonly used visually. For example, think Western films such as The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Morricone mirrors these visuals with the music. Long sustained notes compliment the tiny figures of the men against the ice wall and walking across the top of the ship. As an audience, we really feel the vastness of the landscape and the scene laid before us. It is the combination of the two working together as a unit that truly create the atmosphere that’s so powerful in The Thing.
As the film progresses, you’ll notice more and more synthetic sounds working their way into the score. Some of these are due to Carpenter’s contributions, but some are indeed all Morricone. Take the track “Humanity Part 2” for instance. As the entity embeds itself deeper and deeper into the camp, it’s effect spreading slowly but efficiently, the music evolves as well. Like the men themselves, the music becomes “infected.” Traditional woodwind, keyboard and string instruments become replaced by electronic, synthesized sounds. While Morricone is a maestro and a true master of his craft, this also shows a great amount of respect for the director for which he is working for. Obviously, John Carpenter is known for his synth sounds, and it wouldn’t really be a Carpenter film without them. This track as well as “Sterilization” show that while Morricone was of course working with the film and story in mind, he was also truly cognizant of who was at the helm of this operation.
Now, as previously mentioned, when Morricone composed the score for The Thing, he did not have the final version of the film. This, coupled with Carpenter’s own abilities and desires for the film, left quite a bit of Morricone’s work never utilized for the movie. That doesn’t mean that it was wasted however. Years later, Quentin Tarantino called upon Morricone to score a little film he was working on called The Hateful Eight. However, he needed a score quickly and that didn’t really work for Morricone. So, they compromised. Morricone had a handful of songs from The Thing that had never been used, and due to The Hateful Eight‘s similarities to The Thing (snow, imposters, Kurt Russell, etc.) it was a natural fit. Morricone was able to fill in the blanks and voilà. Tarantino ended up with an amazing score for his film, and Morricone earned himself an Academy Award, a BAFTA award, a Golden Globe and a Critics’ Choice Movie Award for Best Score. Not too shabby.
From nearly every angle, The Thing is now considered one of the greatest horror films of all time. The special effects, the acting, the directing, cinematography and of course, the music. It’s a prime example of what can happen when a truly great composer gets to work with a truly great director and a mutual respect, collaboration and admiration are present. If you’ve never listened to the score apart from the film, I highly recommend it. You’ll hear pieces of the music you never really noticed before and pieces that were straight up not used in the film.
In 2017, Waxwork Records released a couple highly sought after pressings of Morricone’s score. The standard ‘Snow’ edition on 180 gram white vinyl as well as the Deluxe ‘Trapped In The Ice’ version with the break-away ice slipcase are both out there…but they’re not cheap. Original MCA Records pressings are a little more affordable, but not by much. Moral of the story with this one is, if you want a vinyl copy, be ready to spend anywhere from $40-$200. However, it’s well worth it. The second that needle hits that groove, atmosphere oozes out of the wax and you’ll swear the temperature drops a few degrees in your house. You might also keep a closer eye on that dog of yours as well…
Want more score? Check out our previous installments of Terror on the Turntable, where I dissect an iconic horror score each month! Talk all things The Thing with us over on Twitter or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group!